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The funding crisis

When the news broke of the UK's withdrawal from Gemini back in November, there was much suprise and astonishment amongst the astronomical community. This effectively meant no more observations for UK astronomers on either Gemini South in Chile, or Gemini North on Hawaii, effective immediately. Observations already scheduled for early 2008 were cancelled and PhD students needing the observations for their thesis work must have panicked. Of course, we now know that this was merely the tip of the iceberg with our funding council, STFC, struggling with an £80 million hole in the budget and threats of cuts of 25% accross physics departments. Time on Gemini has now been reinstated for observations already scheduled, but the future of our participation in this collaboration is still in jeapordy.

So what's the big deal? There are other telescopes, right? Well, yes, through ESO the UK has access to several other 8-m telescopes in Chile where the southern sky is visible. However, there are no other telescopes of that size which UK-based astronomers are entitled to use in the northern hemisphere, effectively cutting off our ability to make very sensitive observations of the very sky which passes over our own country!

The funding cuts will mean a reduction in the number of PDRAs - posts for astronomers who have recently completed their PhDs. This is where most astronomers who stay in academia start out. This is what I currently am. With the recent push on funding more PhD students, this reduction in the number of PDRA positions will mean that there will be even more competition for a decreasing number of posts over the next few years. What will this mean? Fewer astronomy PhD graduates will be able to get a job in their chosen field in this country. Many will do what a significant fraction already do and get jobs in industry, finance or another field where their skills are sought after. Now, this is not a bad thing, the country needs highly skilled people in many industries. But that's not the whole story.

It will leave some physics departments short-handed. PDRAs do a lot of useful work. Academics do a lot, but are often tied up with large teaching loads, PhD students need supervision and are trying to finish their theses, so PDRAs, young enthusiastic researchers capable of working independently, do a lot of research in the meantime - they are crucial to the successful completion of many projects, and they help with the training of future PhD students.

Some may give up on the UK as a place to work and go overseas, contributing to the so-called "brain drain". If there are more posts overseas and someone is keen enough to stay in the field they've spent the past several years studying, then chances are they will leave. I'm guilty of this myself, although in my case I accepted the job in December, before news of the funding crisis broke. In retrospect, I think I was rather lucky. Chances of getting another contract here (if I had decided to stay) now look rather slim.

Then there is the problem of public perception. Physics already has a bad reputation in schools, and this is really not going to help matters. We need people with science and engineering backgrounds in many sectors of the job market. That is a fact. If the perception is that there is no future in the field, then applications for university places, even A-level entries, are likely to drop. Where then are we going to find people to fill these jobs? Do we try and attract people from overseas? Or do we just let other countries take over and give up on any kind of industry?

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 20th Feb 2008 (17:36 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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